Shabaab behead Kenyan, Morocco arrests ISIS jihadists, and Boko Haram makes big gains

The militants have grown stronger, secured powerful new weapons and refreshed their ranks while the Nigerian military is mired in crisis.

AS the world’s and Africa’s attention remained focused on the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, the continent’s terror groups have not been distracted.

The Somalia-based militant group Al Shabaab beheaded a Kenyan driver after kidnapping a group of traders on Kenyan soil near the resort island of Lamu, police said today, Saturday.

The militants kidnapped the traders on Wednesday and took them to the dense Boni forest area in Lamu county. The militants released three of them who were Muslims and beheaded a Christian.

Local police said the body of the victim was found in the forest on Friday. According to police, the survivors said the attackers were well armed and had identified themselves as Shabaab members on a mission to fight security forces inside Kenya.

The beheadings seem to mirror those of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) extremists, who recently cut off the head of the head of American journalist James Foley, and posted the video on the internet. It is probably too early to say whether Al Shabaab was inspired by ISIS.

Somalia’s Shabaab rebels have vowed to step up attacks inside Kenyan in retaliation for Kenya’s military presence in Somalia as part of the African Union force (AMISOM) supporting the country’s fragile government.

Lamu, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has been hit by several attacks since mid-June that has left scores dead.

The attacks have fuelled divisions on the coast, a region where radical Islam, ethnic tensions and land disputes are an explosive cocktail.

In Morocco, authorities on Friday said they had arrested two ISIS jihadists who had been planning to leave for training camps in Syria and Iraq to prepare attacks at home.

The two, whose identities were not disclosed, “planned to receive military training” before taking action in Morocco, “under the Islamic State’s plans to expand its field of operations,” an interior ministry statement said.

Morocco arrests

Morocco has announced the dismantling of around 20 “terrorist cells” in recent years, the most recent in mid-August, in cooperation with Spain.

But, the more long-term significant development was in respect of Nigeria’s Boko Haram. Analysts say Boko Haram may be closer than ever to achieving its goal of creating a caliphate in northern Nigeria, but that comparisons to the Iraq crisis are premature and the country’s military can reverse the group’s gains, analysts say.

The conflict in the Islamists’ northeastern stronghold remains in flux even as witnesses, security sources and experts report that the insurgents have seized several areas and towns since April.

Precisely mapping the areas captured by the extremists—who are blamed for more than 10,000 deaths since their uprising began in 2009 - is very difficult.

The United Nations has confirmed reports that the towns of Damboa and Gwoza in Borno State were under rebel control earlier this month, although Damboa may have since been retaken.

On Thursday, witnesses and an official in Buni Yadi in neighbouring Yobe state said that town had also been seized.

Ryan Cummings, chief Africa analyst at the South Africa-based crisis management group Red 24, described Boko Haram’s shift from guerrilla-style hit-and-run tactics as “a significant evolution” and predicted the trend would continue.

Virginia Comolli of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London added that the group was “in control” of northern Borno, which is consistent with residents’ accounts.

She said that the group had captured and held territory before but “now we are looking at a more extended area”.

“They have a real shot of achieving their goal” of creating a strict Islamic state in the north, she added.

Military weakness

While the rebels have grown stronger, secured powerful new weapons and refreshed their ranks with new conscripts, military failures are largely to blame for the worsening crisis, multiple sources said.

“For whatever reason, our soldiers, who are capable of defeating Boko Haram terrorists, were starved of the necessary weapons,” said a senior security source in Borno’s capital Maiduguri.

When the state of emergency was declared, the military launched a massive offensive, which temporarily flushed the rebels from their strongholds.

But, said the security source, top brass failed to sustain the pressure.

Boko Haram “would have been completely crushed had the tempo of the offensive been sustained”, he told AFP.

“I assure you it will not take much effort to crush them if provided with the needed weapons,” he added.

Lack of arms for troops has become a flashpoint issue, and soldiers this week refused to deploy to Gwoza without better weapons in an apparent mutiny.

Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil producer and top economy and some observers have put the defence budget at roughly $6 billion per year.

If troops are chronically ill-equipped, corruption and inefficiency are the likely causes, rather than a lack of resources, experts say.

Most agree that force alone cannot end the five-year conflict and must be coupled with major economic development in the desperately poor northeast.

Not ‘Islamic State’

In a July video, Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau voiced support for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State (IS) extremists who have captured parts of Iraq and Syria and claimed the grisly execution of US journalist James Foley.

The mention of Baghdadi was unusual for Shekau, who in videos often appears completely detached from current events.

Jacob Zenn, an analyst at the US-based Jamestown Foundation, said there were similarities between IS and Boko Haram, notably their shocking levels of brutality.

Boko Haram has among other crimes massacred thousands of defenceless civilians, opened fire on students sleeping in their dorms, kidnapped hundreds of children, including more than 200 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in April.

But while the US has described IS as “beyond anything” it has seen in terms of funding, weaponry and strategic sophistication, Boko Haram is largely made up of poor, uneducated youths with almost no tactical training.

The group is thought to have ties to outside jihadi groups but the extent of those links is not clear.

Boko Haram “has not reached that level of sophistication”, Comolli told AFP, referring to IS, but said Shekau’s mention of Baghdadi was noteworthy.

Boko Haram, she said, is “watching what is going on”.

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